Your body experienced many changes when you started breastfeeding. Now that you’re nearing the end of this special period in your life, what changes can you expect?
From physical changes to your breasts to more intangible effects on your mood and emotions, it’s more than you may think. However, it can be an easier transition when you’re prepared and armed with some knowledge.
If you have questions about what happens when you stop breastfeeding, you’re not alone. In this article, we’ll go over some of the answers to help you through the changes.
- When stopping breastfeeding, milk production gradually decreases and may take 7-10 days to mostly dry up.
- Engorged breasts can happen as milk production slows; avoid expressing or pumping milk unless absolutely necessary for comfort.
- Emotions such as sadness may arise due to hormonal changes and the transition away from breastfeeding.
- Breast appearance may change, with some women experiencing saggy breasts as milk ducts and production systems shrink back to pre-pregnancy size.
When Should You Stop Breastfeeding?
The decision to stop breastfeeding is highly personal, and the timing is different for everyone.
Some breastfeed until their child begins to eat solid food. Some continue into the toddler years. Some can choose when to stop, and some must end abruptly due to medical reasons or circumstances beyond their control.
Because of the many circumstances women face, it’s hard to set an exact milestone for when breastfeeding should stop for every woman. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers a goal to strive for that is best for babies (1):
- Breastfeed exclusively for the first six months.
- Breastfeed alongside other foods until your baby turns one.
- Continuing to breastfeed after the age of one if both mother and baby are doing well with it.
Experts suggest the average age of weaning worldwide is 2.5 years. In some places, weaning happens much earlier; in others, babies breastfeed longer. Only you can decide when it’s best to stop breastfeeding your child.
What Happens When You Stop Breastfeeding
If you’ve decided to stop breastfeeding, here are five changes you can expect to go through. However, every mom has a different experience, and it’s important to stay in touch with your doctor and lactation consultant if you’re worried about anything.
1. Drying Milk Supply
One of the most significant changes affects your milk supply. When you stop breastfeeding, your body naturally begins the process of stopping milk production. However, this process takes time.
The longer you’ve been producing milk, the longer it usually takes to dry up (2). Hormones regulate the breastfeeding process. If they’ve been consistently running, it will take some time for the body to adjust.
Most moms see the bulk of milk gone within 7 to 10 days after stopping breastfeeding, especially if you’ve naturally been decreasing the number of feedings you do each day.
You may still be able to express a little milk for weeks or even months.
Any stimulation to your breasts — sometimes even as simple as water running over them in the shower — can potentially prolong the process of milk drying up.
Editor's Note:Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC
2. Engorged Breasts
A slow weaning process is your most comfortable option to stop your milk production gently, but you may still experience feelings of fullness and tightness, especially at first.
Avoid expressing or pumping milk at this time. If you have extreme pain, express a little milk just to comfort, but do not drain your breasts completely. Doing so triggers your body to create more milk, lengthening the drying-up process.
3. Feeling Sad
Because your hormones change when you stop breastfeeding, you may experience some heightened emotions, including feelings of sadness.
This occurs because of the lowering levels of prolactin and oxytocin in your body, but it’s also natural to struggle with this change (3). You’ve put so much work into breastfeeding, and if you use it as a bonding tool, it can be hard to let go. And seeing your baby growing into toddlerhood can be bittersweet.
Build other bonding experiences with your baby as you stop breastfeeding to help keep your mood up and make the transition easier.
4. Saggy Breasts
It’s OK to wonder about the appearance of your breasts. Many women worry their breasts will become extra saggy after breastfeeding. Whether you breastfeed or not, your breasts will likely be changed from before pregnancy. Breastfeeding is just one of many factors to determine what your breasts will look like. Others include genetics, weight, health habits, and age (4).
Some women don’t have saggy breasts after they stop breastfeeding, but some do. It occurs because the milk production system inside your breasts, namely the milk ducts and milk itself, stretches out the breast as it fills. Once the system returns to its pre-pregnancy size after milk production stops, the breasts may sag (5).
While some moms may struggle with the new look, sagging breasts pose no medical threat.
5. Your Menstrual Cycle
Breastfeeding affects fertility, though to what degree is as varied as there are moms. Studies have found women who breastfeed exclusively often don’t have their periods. This is because nursing at such regular intervals stops the hormones responsible for menstruation from activating (6).
If this has been your experience, be prepared for your menstrual cycle to return once you start weaning and stop breastfeeding altogether. It may also cause a peak in your fertility levels. Even if you bleed while breastfeeding, your body may not have ovulated, producing an egg. If you are not ready to become pregnant again, be sure you are using contraception.
If You Have Any Questions
Do you have more questions about the changes you’ll experience when you stop breastfeeding? We suggest working with your doctor or a lactation consultant. Just as lactation consultants can help you begin nursing, they can also help you as you stop.
Trust your body. If you feel highly unusual or notice any changes in your physical or mental health, don’t be afraid to talk to someone about it.